Legendary songwriter Dan Penn appears tonight for an unscheduled show with Bobby Emmons at the Dakota Jazz Club & Restaurant in downtown Minneapolis. Penn’s site is here; his bio is here. The show is an almost unbelievable review of Penn’s almost unbelievable career at the heart of soul/rhythm and blues over the past 50 years.
I know because I attended last night’s incredibly beautiful sold-out show before which Dakota proprietor Lowell Pickett announced that Penn and Emmons had just accepted his invitation to extend their stay for another night. Buy tickets for tonight’s show online here or call for tickets at (612) 332-1010 during business hours. If you live in the vicinity of the Twin Cities, don’t miss this show, or if you know someone who lives here and loves music, please spread the word. This is the Twin Cities musical event of the year.
Penn’s appearance in Minneapolis presents a rare opportunity to see a man without whom much of modern soul music would not exist. Last night was Penn’s first live performance of 2011.
Penn appears through the good offices of local record store owner Mark Treehuis of Treehouse Records, in the first of Mark’s planned “unsung legends” series. As applied to Penn, the appellation of “unsung legend” is a bit of a misnomer. Penn is a legend who has been sung, so to speak, by Peter Guralnick, in the great book Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom. Guralnick designates Penn the “secret hero” of the book:
Dan Penn is in many ways the secret hero of this book. A singer-songwriter-occasional guitar player from Vernon, a tiny town eight miles south of Muscle Shoals, he arrived in Florence [Alabama] with a song that he had written (“Is a Bluebird Blue?”) which everyone knew was going to be a hit and which subsequently became one for Conway Twitty in 1960. He also came as something of fully formed personality, even at the age of sixteen or seventeen….Dan Penn…was as definite about his musical likes and dislikes as he would be ten or twenty years later — after he had teamed up with Chips Moman, written dozens of classic r&b hits (“Dark End of the Street,” “Take Me (Just As I Am),” “Sweet Inspiration,” “Out of Left Field,” “Do Right Woman,”) with either Chips or Spooner Oldham, produced the Box Tops’ #1 hit, “The Letter,” and tossed off hundreds of rough demos and studio versions of his own songs, which by the account of most of the participants easily surpassed the records that were actually released.
In last night’s show Penn ranged widely over his career in a seamless web of love and devotion, conjuring up the spirits of Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, James Carr, Jerry Wexler, and many others with whom he has worked in the course of his distinguished career. Penn’s own voice is deeply soulful and emotive. As Guralnick’s account intimates, Penn’s versions of the songs shine even by comparison with the hit versions. In the video below, for example, dating back to a 1999 performance with Spooner Oldham, he performs “I’m Your Puppet,” a smash for James and Bobby Purify in 1965.
At last night’s show I ran into KFAI deejay Pete Lee, the omniscient proprietor of Bop Street, the long-running Monday afternoon drive-time show from which I have learned so much over the past twenty years. I asked Pete why Penn was the hero of Guralnick’s great book. Pete patiently explained: “Because he wrote the songs.” Thank you, Mr. Lee!